A year ago, a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy named Lorrie Brown answered a call at a foster home, the kind she always took if she could. She likes kids.
The two girls in the house were sisters from Jamaica. Yes ma'am, they said when she talked to them. Polite, Brown thought, but strong, too. Wonder what their story is.
Things got settled and life went on until a couple of days later, when a state caseworker called Brown. That call you took? The foster mom doesn't want the older girl, the 16-year-old, any more. And good luck finding a home for two teenagers — looks like the sisters will be split up.
So. Was the deputy ready to be a foster parent?
Brown, 31 and separated without children of her own, had thought about fostering kids, had even asked about it. Her own family wasn't surprised to hear what she was considering. Lorrie always knew her own mind.
She called back and said yes.
The oldest was Hadonica — Don — outspoken, affectionate, a talker. Her little sister Buffiesha — Buffie — was more like Brown, shy and quiet, content with her books and sketches.
The sisters had it tough, with abuse allegations involving the mother's boyfriend and their illegal immigration. Once here, their mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The girls ended up in foster care after somebody realized they had been living in her hospital room for more than a week.
They started over at the deputy's home in Riverview. Arguments between the sisters, Brown noticed, blew over like a breeze. One day, she got Buffie a six-piece Chicken McNuggets lunch. The girl ate three and saved three for her sister — even though she wouldn't see her until that night, even after Brown assured her they would get Don something later. For so long, they had looked out for each other.
The girls thought Brown's house — their house, they corrected themselves — was beautiful. They cooked dinner and had movie nights and loved going through Brown's shoes in her closet. They laughed a lot in that house. Don, it turned out, had a thing about not letting you leave home without hugging you. Buffie said she wasn't scared anymore.
And who knew it could go both ways? Brown's separation was headed for divorce, and the girls were there every day, asking how her day went. Sometimes, they were the ones telling her it would be okay.
"I guess in essence, we helped each other," she would later say.
It was the girls who brought up adoption. They visited their mother, who had been legally deemed incapacitated, regularly at the hospital, but stepped out of the room when it was time for the adults to talk about it. Their mother asked if Brown would get any financial assistance for taking her girls. No, Brown said. Their mother started to cry. Where do I sign? she said.
It was a selfless act to secure her children's future when she was gone, a judge would later say.
Those who work in family court and who do not see happy endings every day rallied for this one, even finding an immigration lawyer who worked to make the girls citizens. At Christmas, the sisters wrote thank-you notes to the judge on their case, Buffie's signed with a smiley face, Don's with a purple heart.
Now 14, Buffie is on the honor roll at Lennard High. She sketches houses and thinks maybe she'll be an architect. Don, 17, has her GED and big plans for college and a career as a medical examiner. When she talks, it is hard to doubt this will happen.
This week, the girls took their seats in the courtroom on each side of Brown, holding tight to her hands under the table. And when Brown reached up to wipe away her tears, their hands came up with hers, making them laugh.
"By the power vested in me by the state of Florida," Circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan said, "this is your mom." Though they knew that already, a family lucky enough to find each other.